Why Can’t I Buy My Book Any Where But the Bookstore? Part 2

The other day I started a rant, i mean blog, on custom textbooks. If you didn’t read part 1, here it is. As we look forward we pick up speaking about custom and its growth. Please enjoy.

The custom model is not new and actual numbers are difficult to determine as nobody produces a list of all the custom ISBN numbers and the related main editions (the unmodified text and original ISBN). Thus, it is nearly impossible for any third party to index all the ISBNs that are associated with the main core text, which is actually kind of scary. I mean, publishers and bookstores are terrified of so-called pirated editions yet they are creating something that isn’t so very different in that it’s a variation of an original for which there are repercussions. Sure, the copyright is legit, but a custom edition has about as much buyback value as a pirated scanned PDF of the core text, which is to say, likely none and it cannot be sold through most channels.

As the world of custom grows, so do the players in the space. Flat World Knowledge has taken a big step in this world with the MIYO (make it yourself) model. In this model, the professor is given one of the core texts in the Flat World Knowledge catalog. From there, the professor can add custom notes, videos, and other features to make the book a unique and relevant edition. The student can then access the book for free online, pay for one of two online access subscriptions, or upgrade to a printed version. While these offer significant upfront savings, such books have no value at the end of the course.

The National Association of College Stores announced earlier this year an initiative to grow custom publications. They see the importance for this product and keeping the sales in the store. In the report, NACS states that “it’s more important than ever to create an exclusive channel for course materials through customization.” Really? It’s more important to provide a product that can only be purchased through one particular channel than it is to figure out how to reduce the costs to students and provide a truly valuable product? Yikes!

The kings of the custom model are for-profit schools who realized early that if they worked directly with publishers, they could create a direct profit channel with 100% sell-through. It seems to me that we should be working to determine how to lower costs and provide a better product, not fighting change and forcing students to purchase books through a single channel and leaving students with a valueless product come end of term.

At this point there’s not much students can do. My advice: If you find that your book is a custom edition, try asking the professor if other books are acceptable for the course or just how much the custom edition differs from the main text. Try going to the bookstore and looking at the cover, title, and author, then do a search online. Or even try to find a student who took the exact same course with the same prof last term and go with a grassroots buy if the custom edition hasn’t changed. Any of this will require a bit more effort but the savings could be substantial.

Comments (5)

  1. Jesse Morrison

    Great stuff here Jeff.

    The idea of creating a product/service that cannot be substituted is almost always at the forefront of every business operation. The problem here, is what controls the product/service from being substitutable. In this case, we see publishers and distributors creating a product that is not able to be substituted by creating custom content (which inherently limits the scope of distribution and acceptance overall). This kind of substitution driven heavily by provision rather than demand is why publishers can positively promote the materials as better fitting for class content, but cannot truly positively promote the materials as an exceptional cost cutting way to provide the product. The main reason the product would cost less, is because there is less of the custom product than the original product in terms of content. If they provided the same amount of content somehow at a lesser price, then we would have some true cost cutting for the actual customer.

    Creating a product/service that cannot or is hard to be substituted based on demand because of factors measured from the customer perspective (such as quality, value added, and price elasticity) is what most businesses strive for to stay competitive. Businesses that do not follow such a model usually do not have much direct customer interaction or do not have competition that is direct.

    Until publishers decides to start integrating themselves forward in the textbook market and get closer to the customers, the game will continue to get played, because it makes most economic sense in their position to play such a game. I would vouch that most distributors of textbooks, that are not tied to publishers, generally share the same view as you Jeff.

    I do find that the arguments for custom content generated products are fairly interesting, but do not address the issue at its core, which is exactly what you touch on.

    Reply
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  3. Mark R. Nelson, Ph.D., MBA, CAE

    Hi Jeff- I want to provide some clarification on the NACS Grow Custom initiative you mentioned above. You wrote:

    “The National Association of College Stores announced earlier this year an initiative to grow custom publications. They see the importance for this product and keeping the sales in the store. In the report, NACS states that “it’s more important than ever to create an exclusive channel for course materials through customization.” Really? It’s more important to provide a product that can only be purchased through one particular channel than it is to figure out how to reduce the costs to students and provide a truly valuable product? Yikes!”

    REALLY??? Did you read the report you quoted? If you did, you would see that this program is just as much about reducing course material costs. Your arguments seem more geared to supporting the old models which have contributed significantly to higher course material costs. More importantly, your quote of the report out of context did a disservice as the initiative clearly states that it is first and foremost about “reducing the costs to students and providing a truly valuable product.”

    Custom done right does reduce course material costs — often significantly. Most of the report focuses on how custom produces a more relevant product and improves student affordability. Part of our initiative is for growing adoptions of things like the custom content from Flat World Knowledge and other OER sources.

    This also relates to where course materials are going. A number of new companies in the course materials space are focused heavily on enabling easier customization by faculty. This includes much of the OER movement which is all about affordability. As things become increasingly digital, you are looking at mostly digital rental models or subscriptions, and possibly mandatory fee-based models through institutional licensing. No buyback is involved with these solutions, but that does not mean there is no potential for savings. It just means that the business models are changing.

    In addition to affordability, the Grow Custom initiative is also about increasing RELEVANCE and VALUE of course materials. While students often complain about price, they also frequently complain about course materials that faculty do not use, or that they buy a whole book and faculty only use a couple chapters. Relevance or degree to which faculty will use the materials selected is more often cited among reasons students chose not to buy textbooks. Custom done right helps solve that problem and reduce costs at the same time.

    From earlier studies we know that the top reasons faculty pick a textbook is because it matches what they want to teach and how they want to teach it. Price is a distant next factor in most cases. Custom improves that relevance, matching the content — potentially from different sources — to provide the piece that matches the faculty member. That increases the relevance of the course materials to the class, which helps ensure for the student that the course materials are more likely to be used and relevant to being successful in the class.

    I am arguing first for the same things you are — reducing costs and increasing value. I just do not see “buyback” as the real value – for me it is increasing student success at the lowest reasonable cost. And if that also means that we encourage more sales through the store channel — well, in my opinion, that is a good thing too. Most college stores are profit-neutral. Average industry margins are among the very lowest in retail. In many cases, any profits after expenses go directly toward supporting financial aid, student services or sometimes other institutional expenses. Everyone “loves to hate” the college store, but few understand the industry. This initiative is intended to help improve educational affordability and student success, and done right custom can help accomplish these goals.

    Finally, as to numbers of custom titles out there, based on data I have seen, I estimate that it is around 21-24% of course material titles sold. This consists mostly of publisher custom, coursepacks, and then some campus-custom (like lab books, etc.). Thus, our initiative is aimed in part at improving the value/price ratio of this substantial and growing segment of the overall course materials market.

    I normally like your blog, but this time I find myself in disagreement and not just because I work for NACS. Are there examples of bad custom out there? Certainly. Just like there are examples of poor, ill-informed, or potentially misleading blog posts. The Grow Custom initiative is about improving relevance and reducing cost — and working to reduce the amount of bad custom out there. We are not arguing for “custom for custom’s sake” or purely to preserve market share as your posting implies.

    These comments reflect my opinion and should not be construed as the official position of NACS or its members.

    Reply
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